Alleged Sheinbein Accomplice Kills Self
By Katherine Shaver and Martin Weil
Aaron Needle, 18, a suspect in one of Montgomery County's most gruesome murder cases, hanged himself with a bedsheet yesterday at the county detention center, officials said.
Needle, who was accused with Samuel Sheinbein, 17, of killing and dismembering Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., 19, was found hanging in his cell from utility tubing at 4:47 p.m. while under protective custody, the officials said.
The suicide came two days before jury selection was to have begun in Needle's trial, and also at a time when his attorneys were raising questions about his mental state and competency to stand trial.
"This just confirms he was a seriously ill young man," his attorney Michael Statham said last night.
In two court appearances last week, Needle stared blankly into space and showed no reaction as Statham raised questions about his mental state.
Last week, a grisly account of the killing of Tello, allegedly based on jail house conversations, was revealed in court. Details later learned by The Washington Post included the allegation that a stun gun was used to immobilize Tello before he was killed. In addition, reports of bizarre behavior by Needle while in jail were revealed.
The revelations "were hard for" Needle, Statham said. "He saw that as the nail in his coffin."
Tello's burned and limbless torso was discovered Sept. 19 in the garage of a vacant house in Aspen Hill. Sheinbein currently is fighting extradition from Israel, where he fled shortly after the discovery of the body.
Efforts to bring about Sheinbein's return, which have involved the highest levels of both the United States and Israeli governments, have focused worldwide attention on the case.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Robert L. Dean said Needle's death -- which he described as a compounding of tragedy -- would have no effect on efforts to bring Sheinbein back and prosecute him in the case.
"Mr. Sheinbein's case stands on its own merit," Deputy State's Attorney John McCarthy said. "We didn't need Mr. Needle to prosecute Mr. Sheinbein." Needle was not expected to testify against Sheinbein, he said.
Sheinbein's Washington area attorney could not be reached last night for comment.
Needle's family was described by Statham as distraught, and they told reporters last night that they did not wish to comment. Tello's mother had learned of Needle's death but did not wish to comment, according to a family friend who answered the telephone at the family home.
"This certainly brings no solace to the Tello family," McCarthy said.
Needle was examined for four hours yesterday by a defense psychiatrist and on Friday by a psychiatrist working for the state, according to Devon Brown, director of the county's corrections department. Needle had been scheduled to go today to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup for further evaluation.
Brown said neither psychiatrist had requested a suicide watch, which would have entailed additional safety precautions, including use of paper sheets. Under protective custody procedures, Needle was to be checked at least every half-hour, officials said. Brown said the last check was made at 4:22 p.m.
At that time, Brown said, he understood that Needle "was fine, listening to music on a headphone."
After Needle was found 25 minutes later, Brown said, he was taken down and cardiopulmonary resuscitation was begun. A faint heartbeat was detected, and an ambulance took him to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. He was pronounced dead there at 5:23 p.m. No suicide note was left.
Needle's death came just as new information about the high-profile case began to emerge, based on notes that one of Needle's fellow inmates said he kept of jail house conversations. According to those notes, Needle said that Sheinbein immobilized Tello with a stun gun before killing him and that they both dismembered the body and disposed of the limbs in residential trash cans.
The former inmate also produced a copy of a notarized document purportedly signed by Needle and Sheinbein in New York that refers to the incident, according to copies of the notes and the document that The Washington Post obtained from the former cellblock mate.
Both the former inmate, Cedric L. Lucas, 41, of Columbia, and the notary public were listed as potential witnesses in plans for Needle's trial.
Lucas wrote in the notes that Needle told him that he and Sheinbein were angry at Tello for selling them marijuana laced with PCP that gave them "a bad trip."
While in Sheinbein's Pontiac Firebird, Needle reportedly told his fellow inmate, Sheinbein hit Tello with a stun gun, then tightened a rope around his neck and beat him to death with a sawed-off shotgun. Needle said that he and Sheinbein took the body to Sheinbein's garage, where Sheinbein set fire to the body with propane and they both cut off the limbs, so they could bury the body in a neighbor's back yard, according to Lucas's notes.
Needle also said that he and Sheinbein disposed of the limbs, which police have never found, in people's trash cans, according to the notes.
After the killing, Needle reportedly told his fellow inmate, he and Sheinbein drove to New York City.
"We wrote a letter saying we confess to the Breeze Hill incident . . . " and got it notarized in a New York store, Lucas's notes show Needle as saying.
Lucas's copy of the notarized document, which he gave to The Washington Post, has at least 14 words blacked out.
The one-page handwritten document begins "I, Aaron Needle . . . " and is followed by six words crossed out before continuing " . . . to the Breeze Hill incident in my golden 1989 Honda Accord . . . Please find car and return it to Roslyn Needle." The note continues with four more words crossed out, followed by " . . . and placed it in the garage of [a house number on] Breeze Hill Lane, Silver Spring, MD."
Tello's torso was found on Breeze Hill Lane, according to police.
Lucas, in his notes, said Needle referred to the document as a "confession note" that made him "worried." The copy of the notarized document bears a New York notary's stamp for Sept. 20, 1997, the day after police said the body was discovered.
Steven J. Corvi Sr., a pharmacist and notary public, said in an interview yesterday that two teenagers walked into his Manhattan Plaza Pharmacy on 44th Street in the midafternoon Sept. 20. They asked him to notarize a piece of paper that was folded over, obscuring its contents, he said.
Both teenagers looked "very nervous" and appeared to be in a rush, Corvi recalled.
"Whoever signed on the right was in charge -- he paid me," Corvi said. " . . . I opened up the letter, and he got very upset. He said: `Don't read it. I want it to be private.' " The two teenagers then left, he said.
The copy of the document provided by Lucas shows what appears to be Needle's name and signature on the right side. Corvi said he glanced at the document but remembers only the last line, which read, "We had to get rid of it."
He said that police called him a week or two later and that he had been subpoenaed to testify a week from tomorrow.
Needle's attorney Statham previously had said his client denied killing Tello.
Statham had acknowledged "circumstantial evidence" from witnesses who say they saw Tello with Needle and Sheinbein on the day he disappeared, and others who say they saw the two several nights later toting what appeared to be a body.
Statham said the jail house notes and his own recent conversations with Needle made him question his client's mental stability while in jail and at the time of the crime of which he was accused.
If the judge had found Needle incompetent to stand trial, the teenager would have been committed to a state psychiatric hospital until deemed mentally fit to understand the charges against him and able to help in his own defense, legal analysts said. A change to an insanity plea most likely would have delayed the trial by several months, lawyers said.
Needle had been charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and being an accessory to murder after the fact. Conviction carried a mandatory life sentence.
Lucas also said in the notes that at times Needle would "go nuts" in jail, screaming out that he was a soldier and urinating in a sink by the public pay phone. "He would scare me because I really felt this to be not Aaron Needle but someone else."
Lucas was one of Needle's cellblock mates last month after Lucas was arrested on charges of making phone threats to his wife.
In an interview, Lucas said that after he was released on bond, he gave prosecutors his notes and several of Needle's documents because Needle had asked him to pass on a written message that Needle was willing to testify against Sheinbein.
Lucas said he shared copies of the documents with The Washington Post because he was angry with the county for incarcerating him and because he said he feared for his safety after hearing the account. Lucas has pleaded not guilty in his case. His notes were taken over a five-day period in March.
Assistant State's Attorney James Trusty said he could not comment on the truthfulness of Needle's reported account. However, McCarthy, the deputy state's attorney, told Circuit Judge Paul H. Weinstein that Needle's alleged statements showed an attempt to "manipulate" the facts about his and Sheinbein's involvement "to his own advantage in his own case."
State's Attorney Dean said: "He was a disturbed young man, obviously not just from tonight, but from a lot of other things we know about him. This is just a bizarre ending to a very, very disturbing tale."
Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.
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